Fighting with my Family (2019)

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Stepping out as solo director, for the first time onto the cinematic mat, is Stephen Merchant who referees this biographical film with a fervent eye on stocking plenty of comedy throughout but he never lets that choke-hold the life and affection out of the movie.

Growing up in Norwich in a family of avid wrestlers, Saraya (Florence Pugh) has come to love the sport and become a dab hand at it too. Along with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) she attends some World Wrestling Entertainment tryouts in London and only she makes the grade but while she’s away in America training to get signed, her wrestling moniker of Paige may be a far reach as she feels like a fish out of water in tenacious new surroundings.

From the sidelines this looked like a movie which would be average at best but it exceeds the hum-drum of other cliched sports dramas based on real people. A big reason why it does is thanks to a constant bolt of energy that runs through the film, be it from the near constant chimes of comic one-liners or from the sensationally good performances from all involved.

Yes it does follow a clear formula paved by similar coming-of-age stories but it beams with such a positive conviction that there’s no way this movie will find itself on the ropes. It may have helped that as a local lad living in Norwich, there’s some glee to be had in spotting places close to home but there’s a general measure of hilarity and zany passion in the Norfolk family unit of which we’re presented that you can’t help but buy into the story.

If you can forgive predictable moments such as what people might say or do, what music may swell into place or even the motion a camera may move in at specific points then you’re faced with an undeniably radiant film that you cannot help but root for and ultimately like…a lot. It’s a film that knows how to capture drama on both sides of the pond. Stephen Merchant has a good grip on showcasing the glossy States as being a maker and breaker of dreams; America can be shiny and bright but it’s also tough and unflinching. Writer/director Merchant documents both the family bond and the vulnerability of Saraya’s newfound environment with humour and heart.

One thing is for sure; we are not worthy of Florence Pugh’s talent. She is a powerhouse of likeability through every second of what we see. Be it through her gritted teeth whilst flipping tyres or the lovingly witty repertoire she exudes with her brother, mum and dad; ‘Fighting with my Family’ is a lot better off by having Pugh involved. I could gush forever but her performance is magnetism personified. Lowden is equally as fierce; the moments of Zak’s developing bitterness are heartfelt and you can definitely hear his anger through just his looks alone.

It may not be lifting up a championship belt anytime soon but there’s enough charm, soul and well-scripted comedy to make this a film a winner you’ll happily cheer for.

7.5/10

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Stan and Ollie (2019)

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Double acts are a common thing to come by but not many of them have become as instantly recognisable in the same way that Laurel & Hardy did. Just from their bowler hats alone, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know who is underneath the famous head wear, so it’s surprising it’s taken this long to get a biopic about them but it’s worth the wait.

In 1937, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were at the top of their game, a pairing known the planet over but this film follows them 16 years later, as they hope to shoot a feature in England but in the meantime they tour small venues across the UK, hoping to retain their sparkle and put aside past differences.

This comedy/drama is directed by Jon S. Baird and it’s definitely a departure from other works he’s been behind. Swept away are the ruder and more adult examples like ‘Filth’ and TV series ‘Babylon’ and bouncing forward is this clean and family friendly film. Baird really captures the sheen of their career highs, managing to present the current UK dreariness of tired music halls and strained tensions as a great opposite to the golden years. That isn’t to say that the director is stating that their later years were less special, if anything, it is more delightful to watch them as they tour, appear for press snapshots and witter away with one another.

‘Stan & Ollie’ may be somewhat gentile and doesn’t completely immerse you at all points; it possesses  that generic TV movie atmosphere but the magical partnership between the lead actors does more than enough to warrant it’s big screen outing. It’s not a story bursting to life and breaking the biopic mould, you know what beats will be hit and when they will happen but a tried and tested model isn’t broken so why fix it, especially when a predictable yet fantastic final showcase does its job in making you well up slightly.

It’s certainly a film that mirrors the charm of Laurel & Hardy; from a sublime tracking shot in the open which initiates the audience into the Hollywood studio lot and the cinematic world of which the comedy duo are so at home in to a good couple of skits which are tame yet visually pleasing to tickle the funny bone and show off their unmistakable chemistry.

John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan are a joy to watch, hitting the highs and lows of their friendship and work-life to glorious effect. The movements and mannerisms they’ve honed not just in dance routines and theatrical set pieces but off stage also, are expertly done and really help you feel like you’re watching the real deal. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are marvellous too, as a back-up double act to their husbands showing their adoration in different ways through emotion and well scripted squabbling.

One word can sum up this film: delightful.

7.5/10

Welcome to Marwen (2019)

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Inspired from a 2010 documentary, this plasticky picture has a great visual flair but feels as loosely coherent as one of the figures’ crooked joints.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a great illustrator but after a vicious hate crime, he’s lost his skill of drawing and his memory before being beaten to an inch of his life. In trying to combat his new social flaws and trauma, Mark has crafted a model village inhabited by gun-toting women and a brave WW2 pilot based on the likeness of Mark himself.

From ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ to ‘Polar Express’, director Robert Zemeckis has been behind a selection of iconic family films and this film seems to try going down that route but comes across many stumbling blocks, at least the animations aren’t as dead eyed as the festive affair of Hanks and co. The film is somewhat creepy and trying and it grates to new levels when Zemeckis tosses in movie echoes, seen in the ‘Forrest Gump’-inspired poster and a DeLorean style machine with subsequent flames, these aren’t grin worthy call backs but rather painful, self-congratulatory references.

‘Welcome to Marwen’ can never really shake the feeling that it doesn’t which lane to stay in, it’s a tonal mess; one with an alarming mixture of bumpy Nazi drama, witchy screwiness, hobbling melodrama and unusual narrative developments which could have been emotional but just take you right out of any wish of immersion. Also, the plot seems to be aspiring to be this progressive product but more often than not it tests the patience and Mark’s female-centred dream world and his interactions with neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann) are less movingly sad but resoundingly awkward.

There are some interesting moments; the film possesses a nice shiny plastic sheen and the majority of the visuals are excellently mastered, with this comes a great level of awesome transitions between doll and human world with the town of Marwen being a lovingly detailed environment to be a part of. The film is sometimes quirky and oddball in a good way but more often, in a manner that’s all over the place with plot points to make you roll your eyes and a heavy coating of cringey dialogue lessening the engaging goal of the story.

Carell is alright to watch in this, he gets the balance between stutteringly awkward Mark and the kindness, artistic simplicity of the man. Though moments of strain and anguish where the actor screams, you can’t help but laugh as you’re reminded of a shouting Brick Tamland in the ‘Anchorman’ movies. The females of the ensemble are all well good, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae, Mann and Eiza Gonzalez are caring characters but they never cross over the line to become interesting, they’re simply there to serve Mark’s interests and it feels too easy that they like and understand all of his Marwenian choices.

This is a strange bag, a Zemeckis movie with his effect of heavy-handed attempts of charm backfiring and getting annoyingly lost in a haze of good visuals and irritatingly ineffective sentimental fodder. This is not a doll Al would want to and box and ship to Tokyo.

5/10

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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The show must go on. After ups and downs that would sink even the sturdiest ship, this production has survived lead actor changes and a fired director to keep its head afloat and finally see release. It was worth the wait because this biopic docks with dynamic delight and is a blast of fun.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ chronicles the birth of the band Queen up to their Live Aid performance in 1985. It mostly follows the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), as he both deals with his sexuality and identity and the hopes that the group will achieve greatness for providing something different to the music landscape.

The story predominantly follows Freddie Mercury as his is the most captivating presence to observe. As a Queen affair, the other 3 members don’t play too much of a part, it’s mostly their music that does the talking and quickly this film sounds like a rock musical. Their incredible songs take over and though it would have been much better to let the film take some time in setting up their genesis, the sounds of their classic tunes can’t help but course through you and get your head nodding and your feet tapping.

This early rush of Mercury joining May and Taylor and before the audience knows it, the foursome are touring in America feels like a wasted opportunity for a gradual climb to their success but as the film progresses like the operatic vision in Freddie’s mind, it fills out with chords of fun brilliance and beats of more dramatic emotional moments. Though it plays fast and loose with a lot of facts, it’s a movie that gets better and better and when the credits roll you wish that it wasn’t over.

Bob Geldolf’s massive Live Aid concert bookends this film, the first scene is just a gorgeous snippet that tickles the senses to the arrival of a phenomenal band. It is the ending scene that plays out like a cinematic concert. The guitar riffs, drum smacks and Mercury’s vocals ring out and reverberate around the screen in the biggest and best possible way.

It isn’t solely their music that makes you go Radio Gaga, there could have been more to the privacy of Freddie and his band-mates but the brush strokes which paint us Freddie’s personal life are more included than you may expect. The LGBT scene of the period, his mannerisms and ultimately the disease which took his life at a cruelly young age aren’t flippantly tossed away, they were part of this icons magnificent character and the film ensures to include this side of him. The support of May, Taylor and John Deacon do come into play more as we see how supportive they are through thick and thin, without them Mercury would go on a full self-destructive crash.

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury is inspired casting and though he felt unaware at first of Queen’s back catalogue, he quickly embodies the singer in such a way that there’s numerous times you think you are watching the real man in front of your very eyes. The movements of Malek are exceptional, he possesses an otherworldly electric grace that fires up the stage as Mercury did so well. These enigmatic and flamboyant touches are vibrantly sold by the actor. Lucy Boynton is a wonderful, sweet presence as Mary Austin, the woman behind Freddie. The actor can tell a thousand stories through her expressive eyes and the emotion she delivers shared with Malek are touching, you can really gauge their closeness despite everything. A semi-cameo from Mike Myers is amusing even just for his almost Shrek accent and ‘Wayne’s World’ reference.

This may definitely be a film that comes across like a self-congratulatory pat on the back to the band, with their hits zooming out of the speakers like a crazy stadium jukebox but it’s the most fun, energetic musical ride. At the end of the day, music is a universal language and Queen’s speaks volumes to how bold and visionary they were and will always be which the film very nearly reflects.

8/10

First Man (2018)

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There’s no doubt that the moon landings of 1969 were a monumental achievement, but is Damien Chazelle’s latest feature as monumental an experience?

‘First Man’ follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he takes up a job for the Gemini programs, as NASA and America hope to reach the stars and send a man to the moon. As the Soviets claim their own space race victories, Armstrong becomes determined to succeed even if that means losing time with his family and wife Janet (Claire Foy).

Chazelle’s directorial career is extraordinarily good, this is only his fourth movie and in less than ten years. Each one has been critically acclaimed and adored by audiences so there’d be no surprise if the 33 year old would feel pressure to follow suit with this Armstrong biopic. The film may not be his most stylistic one but as you’d expect the use of music; scored by Justin Hurwitz, is exceptional. Chazelle truly knows how to utilise sound, whether Hurwitz’s score is twinkling like the stars or cutting out completely to really create dramatic tension, it’s a bold demonstration of sound mixing that adds to the formidable power of space.

Another positive about the film is that it isn’t afraid to highlight the costs and questions these Gemini and Apollo missions cause. People waving placards or queries about the price of human life to achieve this daring quest become little drop points amongst the course of Neil Armstrong’s pursuits. This is a blessed relief because the actual focus on the astronaut is less than engaging, a large percentage of ‘First Man’ feels like a paint by numbers drag which does little to excite.

This is a biographical look not at the exploration of space or the moon landing itself but more about the man, Armstrong himself. It never really rockets to anything special and dare I use the B word; it often feels a little bit boring. It is as if the film cannot really connect to Neil, even if the camera feels forever by his side. There are some absolutely amazing shots in this film but the story drags the whole thing back down to Earth.

Gosling is a charismatic actor and he manages to ensure his portrayal of the first man on the moon is reflective and he shows off this quiet, laser-focused attitude but a lot of the time it makes the film less than interesting to follow because he’s so drained of emotion. Claire Foy is the stand-out as the woman behind the man, she displays a great balance of love and sadness to the man who wants to step on the lunar surface.

‘First Man’ has a lot of impressive visual standouts, so when we’re being thrust into the capsules or training pods with the astronauts the film is exquisite, it’s let down however by the grounded home-life and disengaged approach to Neil Armstrong.

6/10

The Happy Prince (2018)

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Titled from a tale within a collection of short stories by the famous Oscar Wilde; this film mirrors the tragic beauty of the swallow and statue. A poet, playwright and author is accounted in his later years and comes across like a touching tribute to the man.

Residing in Paris after being imprisoned for sodomy, Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) is a penniless man but still has friends he can depend on. The film then looks back at how Wilde came to this point and the loves and lusts he fell into along the way, none more so than with Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan).

It’s a remarkably interesting biopic with a remarkable figure at the centre. I’ve read and studied Wilde’s plays through university and his talent is incredible, the film furthers his character and provides depth to a troubled man, pretty much ruined by society. Rupert Everett’s direction and screenplay doesn’t shy away from the grim side of destitution but revels in the lavish nature of Oscar’s behaviours too.

This makes for a mighty kind of film to watch, there are fun moments to be had but it’s quite a heavy going watch because Everett really makes us see how tough the Irish writer had it in the latter stages of his life. Some of the heavier moments make the biographical journey almost on the nose, of filling out criteria you come to expect from a film like this, plus there’s a couple of points where the film starts feeling long; the back and forth and trotting of the globe with Wilde’s past becoming a vague strain.

A stand out moment with Everett providing stand up singing prowess is a sparkling gem, gilding Wilde with the undeniable talent and attention-grabbing ease he possessed. A couple of throwbacks to a bleak time on a platform at Clapham Junction are washed out of colour, grey and therefore work in showcasing the nastier times in his existence when the people had turned on him. It’s not exactly a film constantly keeping up engagement but there’s a showy, absorbing quality to the most part.

Rupert Everett makes the playwright come alive with vivid intrigue and a Brando like touch of greatness to a role he totally inhabits. He provides a balance of desperate scrapings for love and money with Wilde’s whip smart wordsmith wizardry. Colin Morgan is very good in a role that shows off his spoilt and money orientated manner, he does well as a man almost like the villain of the play.

Oscar Wilde’s later years are documented with great care in a clear passion project from Rupert Everett. The film is also being smart in a late US release because I can see award potential from his turn as the Dublin born figure. We may know of the man and his work but this film proves there’s more to learn and feel.

6.5/10

I, Tonya (2018)

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Hitting the ice rink like a jacked up Torvill and Dean, is an award contending biographical yarn like hardly any other. It’s at once frenzied and focused and almost consistently splitting to burst with on point black comedy.

In the 1970’s, talented 4 year old ice skater Tonya Harding is pressured to keep training by her abusive and chain-smoking mother LaVona (Allison Janney). By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) reaches 15 she can be just as abrasive but falls for rink-side spectator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Through years of abuse, practice and unfair judgement, Harding gets caught up in an Olympic scandal come 1994.

Pacing wise, this film shuttles along like a bobsleigh at breakneck speeds, it’s a fully riveting story from start to finish and I must say I was on board throughout. The characters, based on real people are fully realised and interact wonderfully, Craig Gillespie directs with an eye to tell this story like the funny yet darkly tragic events were and the rags to semi-riches and back again narrative is as finessed as 1984’s Bolero routine.

Honestly, ice dancing has never looked and felt more intense, engaging and visceral as it does here. These quite spectacular and captivating sequences of figure skating dances are wonderfully incorporated into a script by Steven Rogers that sizzles with humour and ultimately real heartbreak. The final stages of the film, led by Margot Robbie are written and performed masterfully and make the fun time, plus often brutal moments fade away as we see just how important the world of skating is to the titular figure. It’s a narrative of prominence and buffoonery, domestic violence and doggedness shown in such a clever and engrossing way that exceeded my expectations.

The Oscar nomination for Best Editing is deserved, ‘Baby Driver’ may excel with it’s editing in terms of car chases and sound styling cuts but ‘I, Tonya’ is edited greatly by Tatiana S. Riegel, who slices through the film like a skate blade would. It all helps keep up the exciting speed, blend the routines in seamlessly and showcase the second half madness of the incident as something you may expect to see in a slick gangster movie, if the gangsters were inept.

Seeing characters account their views of the matter in an interview style is a perfect method of storytelling that bolsters the unreliable narrative from pretty much everyone. You never really know who could be lying, exaggerating or speaking truths and that’s what makes this such a ride to watch. The breaking of the fourth wall is utilised also and sometimes it is a cliche but it’s used to sparingly good effect to heighten the idiot humour or further the character driven explanation to us.

Robbie may not win the gold medal of an Academy Award but if she did, it definitely would be warranted. It’s evident Tonya craves adoration at first from her mum and then from the public and the Australian actor sells that aspect well. This is her finest performance in ever as she brings the Oregon born Tonya Harding to explosive life. There’s crazy eye, comic delivery, heartfelt softness and broken vulnerability all in the mix of her committed turn as the less than picturesque all American figure skater. Janney swears like a sailor and steals lots of the scenes as the overbearing strict maternal type but there’s times you can see kindness behind the cigarette smoke before she comes out with a cracker once again. Sebastian Stan is alright in his role as Harding’s husband but isn’t anything special, in fact his friend Shawn played by Paul Walter Hauser is a bonafide boob of epic proportions, providing ample amount of humour as a moronic slob thinking himself some clever agent type.

I haven’t even mentioned how brilliant the soundtrack and score are either, suffice to say I really really liked this film. I thought it’d be good but it’s soared past that into greatness, thanks to Margot, Allison, sublime directing and editing and a story device that bounces around with the notion of Tonya Harding as a heroine or not.

8.5/10